November 10, 11 and 12 at the Shirehall, Hereford

Where does Richard Wilson get his resources – not just the money, but all the energy and determination – to conjure up the artists and make these quite exceptional recitals happen? And how, afterward, does he balance the books as well as raising, en passant, significant sums for deserving causes? Last year, following a road-to-Damascus, life-enhancing encounter with two musicians in Prague, he brought them to Hereford for two recitals as good as any you could hope to hear anywhere in the world, let alone in this outpost in the Welsh Marches.

This year he was determined to bring back, for three recitals, Jan Škrdlík, with his Tonini cello of 1770, and Petra Besa-Pospisilova, his “collaborative artist”, for whom only a Fazioli was judged good enough (and rightly so). But three cello recitals – on three consecutive nights – was Richard at last over-reaching himself? An Icarus flying too near the sun ...? Your scribe, alas, could attend only the second and third of the three recitals. But by the end, there were no visible signs of our endearing impresario’s wings starting to melt. And on those two nights the enthusiasm of the audience was palpable and the final clapping and shouted bravos were specially warm and appreciative. Both evenings had unique features. “Semper Aliquid Novi ex…” “Always something novel” – the Romans were talking about Africa; but there’s always something novel up Richard’s sleeve. (For how many decades has he sported that same orange sweater?)

Friday’s concert was dedicated to the Spanish professional diplomat, Angel Sanz-Briz. He was sent to Budapest in 1942 by Franco, the dictator whose wartime ‘neutrality’ cloaked sympathy and practical support for Hitler. When in 1944 Eichmann and the Gestapo went to Hungary to implement Hitler’s Final Solution to the Jewish problem Sanz-Briz was so outraged that, without seeking permission from his government, he issued visas to 200 Spanish Jews living in Budapest, who were legally entitled to claim Spanish citizenship. They duly escaped: but Sanz-Briz issued visas to 5,000 non-Spanish Jews, and he bought, with his own money, properties as safe houses where they could be hidden (and learn to speak Spanish!) until they could gradually escape from Hungary by train in numbers that would not confirm the Gestapo’s suspicions that something was going on.

After the war, the Spanish government made no acknowledgement of this – they did not want to publicize their own closeness to the Nazis. Sanz-Briz was posted to America and then to the Vatican, where he died an unsung hero. He was posthumously honoured both by Israel and by Hungary. Kodaly, whose 1915 Sonata for unaccompanied cello filled the second half of Friday’s recital, was born in Kecskemét, Hungary and lived, composed, taught and died in Budapest in the 1940s.

Jan Škrdlík, born in Moravia, studied cello in Brno, at the Janacek Academy. He also studied in Barcelona, so Spain, Czechoslovakia and neighbouring Hungary are in his blood, and the epic tale of Sanz-Briz moved him to write a poem, in Czech, which Richard helped him to translate into English. Richard read this poem after the Adagio second movement of the Sonata, thereby adding an almost unbearable poignancy to a deeply moving experience. Even without that unique feature, it was an exceptional programme that began and ended with two works for solo cello almost exactly two centuries apart, like the twin towers of a suspension bridge dwarfing everything written for that instrument in all those intervening years.

Jan Škrdlík’s choice of what to put between those towers was as ingenious as it was unlikely – passages of the soloist’s part from Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, without accompaniment of any kind. Could this work? Would it make sense without the harmonic counterpoint and counter melody of Dvorak’s orchestral writing? The struggle that is the essence of a concerto’s nature but with one of the contenders absent from the field? But it worked. One heard so much that was new, not the familiar melodies but the passage work normally blended into the orchestral texture, like a tree that loses its leaves only to reveal the strength and beauty of its twigs and branches.

And indeed one could test this reaction because, in the last of the recitals, we heard the concerto with the orchestral score arranged for piano by Dvorak himself. And even with Petra’s abundant artistry, and her instinctive sympathy with the music of her own country, even with all the subtle colour and sonorous power that a Fazioli is uniquely capable of, the experience was, for one listener at least, not as complete and satisfying as the solo passages of the previous evening.

Janacek and Martinu provided the first half of the final concert’s all-Czech programme, illustrating the wonderful rapport between these two musicians, their different characters becoming as one. Petra cool and detached in manner, almost impassive as the music seemed to flow effortlessly from her fingertips, Jan intensively alive to every nuance in music that he seemed to be discovering for the first time as he played. His brain and heart, the bow in his hand, drew from his 250-year-old cello whatever kind of response he sought. The sounds could be beautiful, sweet as honey, or rough, rustic, urgent, as the player responded to the music’s deepest demands. It was a joy and a privilege to hear again this duo whose every ambition is to reveal the music and share it with us, the lucky audience.

Peter Williams